Malay street food : Rojak (sweet and sour fruit & vegetable salad)

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Rojak is a curious snack. It’s considered a salad, by definition but that could be a misnomer – At least from a western perspective.

Fresh tropical fruit and root vegetables are mixed with a dressing. The word ‘rojak’ means mixture in Malay, and variations can be found in a standard fruit rojak and also a Penang rojak. Indonesia also has several rojak variations.
Fruit rojak will  normally include pineapple, cucumber, beansprouts, taupok – the Malay name for deep fried tofu puffs – and  jicama, a turnip-like root vegetable. Known in Malaysia as sengkuang. The concoction is coated with a deliciously moreish mixture of sugar, shrimp paste, tamarind sauce, chilli, lime and water giving it an incredibly layered flavour – sweet, tart and spicy. Peanuts are also added – Peanuts make everything better.

 

Penang rojak is pretty similar but includes squid fritters and tart fruits such as jambu air, also known as rose apple; a red or green bell shaped fruit, easily spotted at most Asian markets, but very regularily in Malay & Thai towns.

A further variation is pasembur – sometimes spelled pasembor, or called Mamak rojak – It’s also a mix fruit and vegetable salad which can include any variations of  potato, boiled egg, fried prawn fritters, cuttlefish, squid, cucumber, jicama, fried bean curd,  served with a spicy peanut sauce.

The main distinctions are – aside from that rojak is inherently Malay, and pasembur is Mamak – that rojak is a standard dish, you order it and it comes, how it comes deemed by its creator. Pasembur stalls, on the other hand have a large number of pots and bowls, there’s a degree of experimentation and it can be up to you to pick and choose what you want to be on your plate.

Rojak is an incredibly tasty dish, sweet, spicy, sour, fruity and importantly, a source of your five a day!

A plate should only cost a handful of ringgits.

Phrases worth knowing 

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people will often respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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Malay street food : Mee sotong / mee goreng Mamak (spicy Mamak squid noodles)

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After grazing our way through some other areas of Malaysia we made our way up to Georgetown, Penang (or Pinang), lauded as the food capital of Asia, street food mecca, whatever. We had high hopes. 

Penang is world famous for having a cultural melting pot of Indian, Chinese and Malay population who all contributed to the culinary landscape.
Penang did not disappoint, in fact it was probably better than expected – One thing; if you’re planning on eating like it’s your last week alive don’t visit during the lunar new year festivities.

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Mee sotong is one of those things where you’re happy to discover it, by accident. I mean, we had only a handful of days planned in Penang (although, we stayed for over a week) and I had a list as long as my arm of hawker dishes I wanted to seek out and try. For some reason, I didn’t include mee sotong and only ended up trying it when one of my ‘first choices’ were closed for Chinese New Year celebrations.

Mee sotong it seems, it more of a mamak dish, and the Indians and Malays are happy to keep pumping out deliciousness whilst the chinese community close up their shops and enjoy the celebrations.

It’s a real simple, firey one pot dish of mamak style mee goreng, flashed fried with the addition of wet, sweet, super spicy squid, or sotong. The sambal sauce turns the whole dish a deep red colour and a little bit of crunch from a type of fritter and some crispy onions  gives it a nice textural variety. If you’re afraid of chilli, stay away from this one.

Deep red, spicy mee sotong

Deep red, spicy mee sotong

The Malay blogging community seem to be real fans of Hameeds near to Fort Cornwallis, which is worth a visit itself. We visited Sri Weld foodcourt on Lebuh Pantai which houses around twenty or more hawker stalls – everything we tried was, like (almost) everything in Penang excellent.

Phrases worth knowing 

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you (people will often respond with ‘sama sama’ which means’ you’re welcome)
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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Malay street food : Teh Tarik (stretched milk tea)

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Tea, the Chinese have been enjoying it originally as a medical concoction for thousands of years and has spread through Europe since the sixteenth century. It was popularised in Britain and was for many years and expensive luxury item until plantations in India yielded increasing supplies and the value decreased as the popularity increased amongst everyday Englishmen.

According to Wikipedia tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, beaten only by water and an important part of social life in many areas of the world. Tea is very important.

The delicious nectar

The delicious nectar

Malaysia is no exception and the tea culture here is an integral part of community and peoples social lives. Malaysia has two elements in its recent history which to me would suggest it’s a tea-mad country – the large population of Indians, who are well known to be keen on chai and the recent colonial history and involvement with the British, well known throughout the world as a nation of tea drinkers.

Teh tarik is drank by all in Malaysia and is a popular drink to while away time in a kopitiam or Mamak bar. Taking influence from Indian chai, teh tarik is sweet, rich and milky.

The word tarik literally translates as pulled and can sometimes be called stretched tea also. Black tea is brewed and combined with sugar and condensed milk before being repeatedly ‘tariked’ between two vessels to create thick, rich creamy tea full of bubbles.

There is sometimes a certain amount of showmanship in creating the drink as servers will pour the tea between increasingly widening cups without spilling a drop.

The tea is served in a glass cup so you can view the rich, viscous pulled tea in all its bubbly glory. The  perfect way to start the day or as an afternoon pick me up.

One final thought – The Englishman, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero once said “Where there is tea, there is hope”.

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Understanding food culture : Mamak.

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One of the best things about trying to write about food is learning about food. The more we travel and the more I try to gauge and understand a culture by it’s dinnertime options the more I learn that there is often another culture; a bigger , historical culture that the food culture is born out of. Malaysia is especially pertinent in this respect, with such diversity and an integration of many nationalities and races in recent history.     

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We’ve got a confession to make. As temporary Australians and keen eaters we (I, mostly) became pretty obsessed with the popular Sydney resto Mamak. It became a bit of a ritual to go there to gorge on food, and escape from Sydney into a small, pretend Asia. To queue for ages and eat our dinners elbow to elbow with other tables and be ushered out past the register whilst we’re still chewing the last mouthful. To be served roti and nasi lemak with belecan shrimp paste spiked sambal and curry sauce capable of producing sweaty faces.

All in all, it basically made me want to visit Malaysia immediately.

Fast forward a few months…

So what does Mamak mean?

The literal translation means uncle in Tamil language. I’ve read it’s a term used in the past for shopkeepers and a respectful term for elders.

Historically, Mamak food in Malaysia has come from the Tamil Indian population who migrated to Malaysia centuries ago from South India bringing with them heaps of flavours and culinary skills which have throughout the years percolated down through generations to become an important part of Malaysian food culture. It’s Indian food, but probably not as you know it.

Culturally they serve as a kind meeting place or a club for people to drink kopi or eat and chat. Similar I suppose to pub culture in the UK, but without the alcohol. The restaurants are very informal, often plastic tables on the side of the street and/ or functional benches in the restaurant. Mamak places will never win any design awards, but they are friendly and welcoming, even to confused looking foreigners. There’s never any rush to chuck you out, either.

Things to know about mamak joints

Traditionally they are a 24/7 restaurant and a go to place for breakfast, lunches and dinner as well as a kopi or teh pitstop. Some of the places I have visited close later in the evenings.

They are predominantly canteen style, you go up to the counter and see what they have and pick and choose your dinner. In the bigger cities, they will have menus in English (although, often lacking description) and will offer table service to tourists, but it’s better if you head up to the counter as you can pick the piece of chicken or fish you want and be more specific about how much of everything you want. Drinks and roti are made fresh, to order.

Mamak restaurants are run by Muslims. That means no pork, ever.

The menu may not show prices, but there is usually a board behind the counter that does – a Mamak meal is one of the cheapest and tastiest ways to eat in Malaysia. When you’ve picked what you want, sat down and started eating someone will come around with a little ticket book and tally up your meal. They leave it on your table and you pay on the way out.  You’ve really gone to town if you’ve managed more to rack up more than ten or fifteen ringgits per head.

It’s all about big flavour – there’s nothing pretty here.

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